Chris Roush is the senior associate dean and the Walter E. Hussman Sr. Distinguished Scholar in business journalism at the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at UNC-Chapel Hill. He worked as a business journalist at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Tampa Tribune, BusinessWeek, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Bloomberg News. He is the author of two books about business journalism – “Show Me the Money: Writing Business and Economics Stories for Mass Communication” and “Profits and Losses: Business Journalism and its Role in Society.” He is the co-author of “The SABEW Stylebook: 2,000 Business and Financial Terms Defined and Rated.”
Mark Vamos remembers the good old days in business journalism, all the way back to the 1980s, when writing about a company meant looking it up in Value Line, finding a list of its analysts in a Nelson’s Directory of Investment Research and ordering its SEC filings through Disclosure and waiting a few days for them to arrive.
Now, he notes, a company’s SEC filings and the analysts who cover them can be found on their website, and the Internet is full of information about its stock price and other data.
“There is so much more information now at our fingertips,” said Vamos, who is now the William O’Neill chair in business journalism at Southern Methodist University. “That makes it easy and simultaneously makes it harder. The baseline stuff you need to know or know how to find out is much more substantial. And I hope that audiences have become more sophisticated too.”
This is the world of business and economics journalism in the 21st century. Information is available at a reporter’s fingertips, and sources are easier to find in the Internet age. In addition, the stories are often more complicated than your normal business news fare from the ’80s and earlier.
Pick up any business publication today, and you’ll find stories about topics such as derivatives, asset-backed securities, high-frequency trading and exchange-traded funds, shadow banking and globalization – all topics that were not even on the radar of a business journalist just 20 years ago.
Combine that with the fact that the media business now requires journalists to be blogging, tweeting and writing all at the same time, and it’s a wonder that business journalism has continued to make strides in advancing its quality.
“Such topics cannot be boiled down into tweets, unless the tweets are simply links to decent treatments,” said Joe Weber, a business journalist for three decades who now teaches at the University of Nebraska. “I also don’t believe there would be a market among readers for 140 characters on, say, securitization and its role in the recession. This idea is a bit like thinking ‘The Bachelor’ can serve as a guide for dating and marriage or ‘Here Comes Honey Boo Boo’ a video manual for child-rearing. Entertaining maybe, but just a tad shallow, no?”
Some are concerned that the new media world is actually hurting business journalism.
“I wonder if staff layoffs on top of the 24/7 demands are causing reporters to resort more often to informed generalizations on complex issues – not inaccurate but not penetrating or revealing – because of the lack of time,” said Barney Calame, a former deputy managing editor of The Wall Street Journal and a former president of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.
“There are still stories that penetrate and illuminate complex issues, but there are fewer of them, and they may be done by star reporters who have enough clout to press for enough time to do more than regular beat reporters could negotiate.”
To be sure, we’re talking about high-end business journalism here, the kind that is practiced in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and Chicago. A large chunk of business journalism in the United States is not practiced in a major metropolitan city. And even in some of those cities, such as Atlanta, it’s rare for a business journalist to write about derivatives or high-frequency trading. They’re focused more on what’s happening in the local residential real estate market, not whether loans on houses from the metro area have been packaged together and sold to some investor in Hong Kong.
Some business journalists, and business journalism experts, believe that it’s not necessary for today’s financial reporter to know the ins and outs of those topics in the first place. They note that the demand for in-depth stories about trading desks and bond trading is limited to high-end publications such as the Journal or Fortune magazine.
Sarah Bartlett, a former business journalist at The New York Times and BusinessWeek, believes that technology is really the only topic that a business journalist needs to become immersed in. While covering mergers and acquisitions and investment banking still requires a reporter to develop relationships with sources, virtually every other business beat is immersed in technology.
Covering the markets is a prime example, she said.
“We need to have reporters who have sophistication of how options and slots and derivatives markets work,” said Bartlett, who now teaches at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. “Look at electronic trading. When we are teaching our students about the markets, we would be very remiss if we didn’t recognize the importance of …electronic markets and trading. It has evolved from programmed trading. People who are not well-versed in the underlying technology of the markets are missing the boat.”
Joe Weisenthal, an executive editor at the New York-based business news site The Business Insider, agrees with Bartlett. He says the best business journalists out there today are ones who focus on a particular topic and spend months, if not years, developing such an expertise.
“It’s always obvious when someone writes about a topic and they’re new to it,” said Weisenthal. “You can tell they’ve not done in-depth research on the subject.”
Becoming an expert on a business news topic is not always an option for the lone business reporter at a 20,000-circulation daily, but as the journalist moves up the financial journalism food chain, they do learn to specialize and write about what they like.
When I started in business journalism at The Sarasota Herald-Tribune in 1989, I wrote about everything from orange juice to boat building to the Port of Manatee and downtown development. We had four reporters on the business desk, so we had to cover anything and everything.
It wasn’t until I worked at The Tampa Tribune and BusinessWeek that I developed an expertise in writing about the insurance industry. Later in my career, at Bloomberg News and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I built up an expertise in the soft drink industry while covering Coca-Cola and PepsiCo., which is not exactly something that many business journalists write about.
There are business journalists out there today who have become experts in securitization and derivatives and other topics.
“I am very interested in currency and interest rates,” said Weisenthal. “And I read boatloads of Wall Street research on these topics every week. They don’t always translate into a story immediately. But I can now write quickly and with sophistication about these topics because I have focused on them.”
There is, of course, the issue that Wall Street and the business world are always creating some new strategy or tactic that has never been written about by the business media. Few, if any, business journalists paid attention to off-balance sheet transactions and the footnotes in SEC filings before Enron collapsed.
And then there’s the time pressure that business journalism now faces. News about a company or the economy is likely the only areas of journalism where consumers can take that information and make money. Whoever among the thousands of business journalists in the country that delivers that information the fastest, with analysis and clarity, will gain readers and subscribers. But speed can also lead to mistakes, and consumers who act upon mistakes made in a bid to be first with a story can get burned.
All of this puts tomorrow’s business journalist in a bind. They need to write with authority about complex topics, and most of them need to do it as fast as possible. Many of them, especially those at the wire services where time is a premium, are performing Herculean feats daily.
Said Vamos: “There is a lot more to know in business journalism today. But there are a lot more places to find it out as well. I can’t imagine doing what we do today back in the pre-Internet world.”